Urban myths, conspiracy theories, bogus science: plenty of phrases describe our seemingly inexhaustible capacity to believe "facts" that are nothing of the sort. Damian Thompson has invented a new word for this – "counterknowledge" – and has tried to give the whole flabby concept a bit of shape.
By counterknowledge, Thompson means that which "purports to be knowledge, but is not knowledge". Its claims can be shown to be untrue because the "facts" can be contradicted, or because there is no evidence to support them. He then sets off at a gallop – this is a short and punchy book, written with passion and humour – to thread his theory through examples.
Most are familiar: that the twin towers were brought down by the US government; that the Catholic Church holds a secret key to the "Da Vinci Code"; or that Diana, Princess of Wales was murdered by MI5. Thompson divides these bits of mumbo-jumbo into three categories – the quasi-religious; the historical; and the medical.
And very persuasive he is. There's nothing like linking unconnected notions into a coherent framework, as Dan Brown can testify. But Thompson overeggs his pudding. One inclusion, and one exclusion, brought me up sharp.
He castigates all parents who refused to have their children given the triple MMR vaccine for causing a measles epidemic. Easy to say in 2008; not so clear in 1999, when a research paper by a seemingly reputable scientist had just been published and testimony abounded from parents whose healthy children had never recovered after the jab. And, 30 years earlier, the scientific establishment had been equally bullish over thalidomide. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
And where was organised religion itself? Thompson is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald, but belief in God isn't up for discussion. "Religion becomes proper counterknowledge," he states, "only when it seriously seeks to undermine, or is contradicted by, the evidence of our senses." Fair enough, but I was expecting at least a chapter exploring this distinction. Instead there are a few paragraphs, tacked on to the end of the section on the loony science of creationism.
It's a small gripe in the context of a book that leaves you slightly breathless, full of new thoughts and, occasionally, mildly embarrassed about your own credulity. And with a final, worrying thought: might the whole theory of counterknowledge not be an example of counterknowledge itself?
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